Friday, September 10, 2010

Mr. Spock and the Priestly Blessing

It's Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). The High Holidays have just begun, so obviously this is the perfect moment to write about Mr. Spock.

There is much high ritual associated with Rosh Hashanah, but certainly one of the most mesmerizing moments is the Priestly Blessing. It’s a bit of spiritual theater handled by the Kohanim, the class of Jews believed to be direct descendants of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol and the brother of Moses.

At our synagogue, members of the congregation turn their backs on the Kohanim, mysteriously shrouded in their prayer shawls, as they gather together on the bimah in front of the Ark. The prayer leader slowly chants the ancient words of the iconic blessing – May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; May the Lord lift up His face onto you and give you, shalom, peace.

The choir of Kohanim responds to each phrase, chanting the words as they wave their arms about, their hands held high and their fingers splayed out in a very, ahhh, Vulcan-like fashion. Actually, truth to tell, it’s the Vulcans – specifically Mr. Spock – who came up with the idea of using the look and style of the Kohanim.

Most everyone knows the story of Spock, aka Leonard Nimoy, coming up with the Vulcan greeting based on what he recalled seeing as a youngster attending High Holiday services with his grandfather. About all I have to add is a bit of shameless name dropping. Consider this, then, a New Year’s gift.

Several years ago, when I was still working for the place with the printing press, I wrote a news brief about a little controversy brewing in the Jewish community. Apparently some local rabbis were upset with a new art exhibit at the Jewish community center, featuring nude photos of women draped in religious garb – tallis, tefillin – and not much else.

The exhibit was drawn from a book of photography, Shekhina, created by, you guessed it, Leonard Nimoy. Some critics found the photos revolutionary, others salacious. Most in the Orthodox community in the Land of Cotton were outraged and demanding that the JCC shut down the exhibit and, if possible, beam Mr. Spock far, far away.

The following morning, when I checked my e-mails, I had a note from an LNimoy asking if I was interested in hearing the real story of the Shekhina. In utter amazement I realized that, well, Mr. Spock was trying to reach me.

After jumping over a few minor logistical hurdles, I eventually hooked up with the Vulcan on the Left Coast and had a delightful conversation that became the focus of an expansive feature story. I do recall Mr. Nimoy telling me in detail how he sat next to his grandfather as a child, enthralled by the pageantry of the High Holiday services, especially the moment when the Kohanim blessed the congregation.

Years later, it was that memory, he said, that led to his developing the Vulcan greeting – hand held out in front of his face, the middle and ring fingers spread apart in what is now a very familiar pose.

The four-word greeting, almost always uttered by Mr. Spock in his oh-so emotionless manner, also nicely echoes the Priestly Blessing – “Live long and prosper.” I could wish nothing better for all of us as we begin the new year.

A footnote. After much give and take, the executive director of the local JCC announced at the time that he had spoken with all interested members of the Jewish community and would be taking their views into account as he decided the future of the Shekhina exhibit. Apparently he was still trying to figure out how best to handle the issue when the show finished its scheduled run six weeks later.

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